Civil War in Washington Territory?
Only if you count vandalism
Did the Civil War happen in the Pacific Northwest?
If “war” just means “battles,” well, no, there wasn’t really a Civil War here. Instead of battles, we had vandalism – gunshots fired through an abolitionist’s window at midnight or U.S. flags mysteriously burned. But if the war was about issues, not just battlefields, then Washington Territory participated fully in the Civil War.
Settlers brought ideas with them, like they brought garden seeds and rifles. They read territorial newspaper coverage of Bleeding Kansas and the Dred Scott decision. Though territorial settlers couldn’t vote in the 1860 presidential election, they fiercely argued for Breckenridge or Douglas or Bell, or for Lincoln. Once Lincoln was elected, the territory’s former governor, Isaac Stevens, who had managed Breckenridge’s national campaign, went to work to convene a national peace convention. But when war began, he joined the U.S. Army. Other loyal officers were called back east. But not all northwest military men did so; a number resigned their commissions to “go south,” following their states out of the union.
Some pro-Confederate settlers remained in Washington Territory, and worked to promote their convictions. For years, some westerners had argued that the far West had little in common with the states back east, and should secede as the Pacific Republic. Once war began, that initiative was co-opted by pro-Confederate agitators who hoped to align the Republic with the new Confederacy. The Knights of the Golden Circle sprang up in the far West, including Washington Territory, to agitate for the Pacific Republic. The KGC was a secret organization that recruited armed men to be ready at the word of command to assassinate Lincoln’s territorial appointees, to be replaced by Confederates.
In Washington Territory, attitudes toward race and slavery varied widely. Republican “abolitionists” believed that slavery should be abolished, but were not eager to work and socialize with free blacks. Democrats might support slavery on southern plantations, or they might believe that slavery should spread to western mines and woods. After the Dred Scott decision, some slaveowners were confident that they could bring their “property” to the far West. There were at least two black slaves in Washington Territory in 1860 – a boy in Olympia and a woman at Fort Steilacoom.
Though there were some “war Democrats,” many Democrats argued that Lincoln should sit down and meet with peace commissioners from the Confederacy, and negotiate an end to the war that would permit slavery. Some newspapers satirized “Emperor Lincoln,” that he continued the war out of “imperial arrogance,” and planned to divorce his white wife to begin “the great work of miscegenation.” The Portland Advertiser and other similar newspapers were suppressed by the military authorities, as seditious.
At the Olympia July 4th picnic, 1863, a crowd gathered around the dessert table, staring at a beautiful frosted cake, decorated with the Confederate flag. At the heart of the Civil War, a bold territorial woman had strong pro-Southern convictions. If the Civil War was about convictions, then it was a national war, and Washington Territory was part of it.